80 voices in support of Scots language + 1

In 1992, with just three councillors, the SNP group found itself the kingmakers on Dumfries and Galloway Regional Council.  They extracted a high price for co-operation but it was not for personal gain.  They sought – and got – the convenorship of the Education committee and sought – and got – a Scots language co-ordinator to work with schools in the area (Liz Niven, incidentally, a wonderful poet and patriot, in the truest sense of the word).  More than that, they gave up their extra responsibility allowances to purchase a Scots language dictionary for every school in the region.

It was a grand gesture that aimed to deliver real action in overcoming residual reluctance in the education system to promote our native language and cultural heritage. 

The First Minister’s promise, announced yesterday, to have every child at school in Scotland visit the new Burns museum is similarly grand.  But it will amount to little more than a gesture if not backed up by the kind of action called for by the 80 academics and writers in their open letter to the Cabinet Secretary for Education.

As they point out, it is no longer good enough to rely on the enthusiasm or doggedness of individual teachers and schools to ensure that our children are introduced to their cultural heritage in a meaningful and sustained way.  The burd was lucky enough to be “taught” Sunset Song for O Grade English;  the Big Yin, my older son, who finished school just two years ago, did not encounter a single Scottish text in any of his coursework.  In another school, it might have been different.  Such inconsistency of approach is not appropriate and the 80 signatories want that changed.

Much progress has been made, not least in the provision of resources for home and school, primarily through the work of Matthew Fitt and James Robertson.  Generations of children are now learning to read and count in the Scots language – including my own Boy Wonder – as well as enjoy classic children’s stories in their native tongue.  Turning Roald Dahl’s the Twits into the Eejits was inspired frankly. 

Moreover, the resources developed for Curriculum for Excellence wil make a big difference but only if schools and teachers are required to use them.  If they are allowed to ignore them – or take a pick and mix approach – then they will wither on the vine.  These 80 signatories are trying to prevent that happening.

They also want the recommendations of the Working Group on the Scots language implemented.  These include appointing a scots language co-ordinator in every local authority area.  The post in Dumfries and Galloway is long gone, and without the kind of government back up sought, any such future appointments will be short lived, subject to the vagaries of cultural fashion. 

Establishing the working group was a bold move by the SNP government;  implementing its recommendations requires even bolder thinking.  It is important that our children grow up with a keen sense of identity:  of who they are and where they come from and what riches can be derived from the country in which they live.   Teaching children this is not about being parochial or trying to limit their horizons:  it is about lifting their aspirations and sense of self. 

Others have suggested that Scotland suffers from a crisis of confidence and self-worth that manifests itself in poor health and well being outcomes – the Glasgow factor.  Encouraging children to enjoy and embrace their cultural heritage not only opens their minds to the possibilities of literary riches in other cultures, but might also help address other more deep seated social problems.  The burd grew up in a school environment where the use of Scots dialect – in particular, the wonderful Galloway Irish dialect – was literally beaten out of children.  Many words and phrases common in my childhood are now absent from conversation. 

Undoubtedly in these austerity times, the justified cry will be where is the money to come from?  The burd suggests that the cost of implementing the First Minister’s grand Burns gesture will be as much as paying for 32 local authority – or fewer if regional posts are a way of stretching the money further – Scots language co-ordinators.  Which is the more meaningful and substantial proposal, and therefore worthy of our investment?


11 thoughts on “80 voices in support of Scots language + 1

  1. Any school in Scotland that puts kids through O-grade english without a scottish literature reference text should be ‘named and shamed’, not just faintly criticised in passing

    • There are so many schools to be named and shamed the list would be enormous. One way round the issue would be to make it something to be reviewed by the inspection regime which would enable naming and shaming and also actions for improvement.

  2. Looks like we’re thinking along similar lines – http://albamatters.blogspot.com/2011/01/burns-baby-burns-disco-inferno.html. So, it certainly wasn’t just your brother who missed out on Scots culture in his education. As I’ve pointed out, it wasn’t even consistent within a school, never mind across the whole system.

    Incidentally, I’d have German taught much earlier than it is (or was?) I also think the formal rules of language should be given more emphasis, which would make it easier to learn new languages without struggling to work out if something is dative, genitive or whatever case it is in.

    • Great post and mirrors my experience. Though we were fortunate enough to get Sunset Song – and I loved the Doric!

      Agree about the earlier teaching of languages – the Labour UK Government wayback when in 1997 actually put extra money into schools to bring forward primary school teaching on languages but wasn’t ringfenced and got spent on other stuff.

      And my brother? That’s my baby I’m talking about, all 6 foot 2 and 15 stone of him! I am an auld burd…. ish!

      • Oops, that’s what I get for trying to do too many things at once. Certainly suggests that things haven’t improved in the past 10 years, though.

  3. Kate, let me say first that I am a keen Burns fan. I played and sang Green Grow the Rashes O and Ye Banks and Braes at a Burns Supper on Friday and will do the same again next month. I positively love some of the old Scots words and sayings.

    I positively love Burns poetry.

    However, and I’m sure you won’t like this, there has never been a homogenised Scots language and even if there had been such a thing it has long ceased to be.

    Lets to something useful and productive for our kids and teach them German which might get them a job.




    • Hi Rab

      I love Burns too! But I also love Neil Gow and Lewis Grassic Gibbon and James Kelman etc.

      I didn’t suggest there was a homogenised Scots language but in its rich variations it does exist. And loved your blogposts linked here.

      Couldn’t agree more – I learned Latin, French, German and Spanish at school and support absolutely the teaching of more languages. Did you see Lesley Riddoch’s article on this in Monday’s Scotsman? Spot on.

      But teaching and appreciating your ain language does not mean junking others. I think all children in our schools should leave school bi-lingual – at the very least.

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